Well actually he told stories, or if I must use the technical literary term for stories, his characteristic way of speaking was in narrative. Narratives (stories) have as a minimum a beginning, middle, and end, and consist of a series of related events that develop and continue through the narrative to the end. In other words it is a story, and not just a statement. Calling a story a "parable" is a reading strategy describing how one intends to read the story. In other words a parable is not a distinct literary form; it is simply a brief narrative read in a particular way.
In the early Christian gospels parables are generally viewed as brief stories intended to make a comparison, draw an analogy, or illustrate a moral or religious principle. Some of the parables are regarded as example stories that provide an example of proper human conduct. Some scholars theorize that parables are stories making a single comparison between an unstated reality and the situation in the story. The single point where the unstated reality and the situation in the story come together is best rendered as a broad single moral point. The stories of Jesus have also been described as metaphors: a narrative description of one thing under the guise of another unlike thing. On this reading strategy parables are described as stories intended to bring the kingdom of God into expression in vivid memorable language—all the above theories take their place among other reading strategies for the parables of the early Christian gospels.
Basic to all these strategies, however, is the story, i.e., the narrative. In my view the stories Jesus told are freely invented secular fictions, which are subjected to various reading strategies by the writers of the gospels and subsequently by modern critics. A parable works when readers put themselves into the story and identify with one of the characters; they are then positioned to make discoveries about themselves.
Why would Jesus tell what are principally secular stories that have been so confusing to understand? The earliest recorded answer to that question is found in the Gospel of Mark around 70 CE—we have no idea what Jesus thought of his stories; all we have to go on are the stories themselves to investigate the earliest period of Christian origins. Some forty to fifty years after the death of Jesus Mark thought the stories were allegories, which is another reading strategy for the stories. A narrative read as an allegory assumes that it is comprised of a series of figures, or metaphors: See Mark 4:3-8, a story about farming in the first century and Mark's reading of it (Mark 4:14-20) as a series of individual figures, which understands it as an allegory about the results of early Christian preaching.*
Why did Mark think Jesus told figurative stories? Mark said that parables are for those outside the circle of the inner group of associates of Jesus. Parables were designed to keep "those outside" in the dark so that they would not learn the "secret" of the kingdom of God and turn and be forgiven (Mark 4:11-12). Matthew, on the other hand, blames the crowds to whom Jesus addressed his parables for deliberately hardening their hearts (Matt 13:10-15)—but omits Mark's strange phrase "lest they turn again and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12). Luke says that the parables concealed the secrets of the kingdom, which were only meant for disciples. Luke left it open that the crowds might still understand other things Jesus spoke about in parables (Luke 8:9-10), and like Matthew he also omits Mark's offensive phrase "lest they (the crowds) turn again and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12).
When I was teaching classes in the parables of Jesus at Missouri State, students delighted in telling me that Jesus used parables because it was a good teaching technique, and made things clearer to the audience—like good examples do. The difficulty is that not even the evangelists agree among themselves on what a parable is and what it was about. For example, Matthew and Luke come to opposite interpretations of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and even disagree on what the parable says (Matt 18:10-14/Luke 15:3-7).
I have never found anyone to agree with Mark that Jesus used parables in order to keep people from understanding "lest they turn again and be forgiven."
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*See the discussion of Mark's theory of parables in Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2004), 27-35.